Friday 25 May 2007

I've got to be a part of it...

There won't be much blogging going on here over the next few days, as I shall be taking a short break here:

Religion, 'truth' and the state

Should governments get involved in promoting certain kinds of religion? Andrew Sullivan draws attention to an ongoing debate taking place on a number of US blogs.

Jonathan Rowe presents the paradox that, on the one hand 'the rights of conscience are so profound government has no business saying what is true or false religion': 'Yet government indeed does have an interest in promoting the "right"' kind of religion, that is religion compatible with liberal democratic, secular, pluralistic norms.' He thinks the precedent set by the Founding Fathers with regard to Christianity should be followed by present-day governments in relation to Islam - i.e. encouraging a moderate, reformed version of the religion to counter the influence of fundamentalist and extremist varieties. Rick Garnett agrees:

Secular, liberal, democratic governments like ours not only take cognizance of, but also and in many ways seek to assimilate—that is, to transform—religion and religious teaching.

Garnett's starting point is Tony Blair's speech after the 7/7 bombings in which he called for the 'moderate and true voice of Islam' to be mobilized. Writing at the time, Ann Althouse took a different line from Rowe and Garnett:

Of course, I understand his motivation for saying this, and I agree with his opposition to a dangerous, violent ideology, but how can he say what the true intepretation of a religion is? I realize Britain does not have as robust an approach to the separation of church and state as we have, and I can see the role of government promoting the more socially beneficial versions of religion - quite apart from the truth - but who is Tony Blair to say what is the "true" version and what is the perversion?

I find myself asking the same kind of question, whenever there's news of the government calling for more British-born imams, or proposing to fund 'moderate' Muslim organisations. Of course, secularists need to accept that Islam, like other religions, is not going to disappear any time soon - a mass conversion of the population to outright atheism being unlikely - so liberal societies have an interest in seeing versions that are compatible with the principles of freedom of speech, gender equality, universal human rights, etc. gaining ground. But is it government's job to promote them? Not only does such an approach risk breaching the church-state divide - with governments taking side in disputes between believers that are none of their business. It also, in a way, shifts the onus from religious groups themselves to fall into line with the core principles of a liberal society. To use an admittedly flawed analogy: when leftwing terror groups took part in bombings and hijackings in the '70s, did we hear European governments saying, 'This isn't the "true" voice of Marxism-Leninism' or 'We need to encourage a more moderate version of anarcho-syndicalism'?

There's also an element in Tony Blair's approach of the woolly-minded faith-ism or religion-ism that I've discussed before, which glosses over the disagreements between faiths and suggests that they are all, in some undefined way, 'true'. But - to echo my earlier post on faith and truth - what exactly is it that's supposed to be 'true' about Islam, and how can this be compatible with the 'truth' of Christianity, or of Sikhism or Hinduism? They can't all be right, can they...?

Thursday 24 May 2007

Homeopathy: science or magic?

Homeopathy has been in the news this week, with some senior doctors campaigning to stop it being funded on the NHS. I heard one of them on Radio 4 yesterday morning deriding homeopathy as 'magical thinking' - the astrology to medicine's astronomy, as it were. Shuggy is on their side and normally I would be too, as a fairly rational sort of person, the kind who doesn't regard 'Enlightenment fundamentalist' as necessarily a term of abuse.

But by coincidence, this is also the week that I've had my first personal encounter with homeopathy. I was recently diagnosed as suffering from chronic tonsillitis and told by a consultant that the only alternative to repeated bouts of the disease was tonsillectomy. For various reasons I've delayed making a decision about this, and was persuaded by a colleague (also usually a reasonable, sceptical type) to give homeopathy a go before submitting myself to the surgeon's knife. After months of feeling pretty awful, I'll try anything.

So I've become one of those people who scour the internet for alternative cures for their condition. I've started taking a couple of over-the-counter remedies that seemed to be quite widely recommended and yes, I have begun to notice a difference. Of course, it's too soon to tell, and it may just be the dreaded placebo effect that the senior medics see as the only benefit of alternative medicine. I've also made my first appointment with a homeopath for a couple of weeks' time. I'm not putting myself forward as a clinical trial here, but I'll keep you posted on how it pans out.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on freedom of speech and liberalism

There's an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Reset, an Italian online journal that I've just discovered courtesy of signandsight, in which she defends Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan's right to freedom of speech, while disagreeing strongly with his ideas. Asked why it is mainly right-wing voices that speak up for her in Europe, and whether she would describe her struggle as left-wing, Hirsi Ali responds:

When fathers remove girls from schools, when they force them into marriage, when genital mutilation is taking place and when the Socialist or the Social-democratic party says “this is their culture, this is multiculturalism, let us protect it and rule like this”, then I think they are not being left-wing. If left-wing were about individual rights as in classical 19th-century liberalism, I would define myself as leftwing.

Reset also includes a helpful account of the recent spat between Timothy Garton Ash, Ian Buruma and Pascal Bruckner, sparked off by Ayaan Hirsi Ali's recent book. It's a fairly evenhanded summary, though using the term 'Enlightenment fundamentalists' in the title without scare quotes is a bit of a warning as to the author's likely sympathies.

Wednesday 23 May 2007

Faith and 'truth'

Norm is uneasy about Andrew Sullivan's reply to the question 'What's so great about Christianity?' Sullivan's tentative response - 'Er: that it's true?' - makes Norm wonder if it's possible to make such a claim in a way that isn't 'monopolistic or exclusivist'.

Personally, I found Sullivan's reply a refreshing change from the utilitarian justifications of religion that have been so much in evidence recently. As I've mentioned before, religious commentators appear to have given up arguing for their faith on the basis that it might be true, preferring instead to focus on the supposed benefits of belief for individuals and society. This encourages a consumerist approach, in which religions ask to be judged on the basis of the effectiveness of their product (an approach that can backfire badly) and in which different faiths band together as an interest group (what I've called Faith Inc. or Religion plc.) to defend their 'brand' against rivals - such as 'secularism' - which are seen as hostile competitors for the public's attention.

Of course, suggesting that the best reason for believing in Christianity is that it's true (however tentatively) immediately raises a whole lot of other questions. What, exactly, do modern Christians believe is 'true', and in what sense do they hold it to be so? Norm cites the example of the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God: do contemporary Christians still believe that to be 'true', and if so how do they understand that belief, given that this article of faith was formulated in an intellectual world in which the notion of gods having sons and of divine messengers visiting earth was nothing like as alien as it is to us?

These questions may seem arcane to some, but they are the kind that preoccupy those of us who are attracted by faith, but wonder how it can be possible in a plural, post-modern world in which notions of universal, timeless truth seem increasingly difficult to sustain.

Tuesday 22 May 2007

The grammar of dissent

The Conservatives are having a mini 'Clause 4 moment' over grammar schools. Shuggy and Oliver Kamm have both deconstructed the arguments of the Tory old guard who want to hold on to selection. Kamm de-couples grammars from arguments about 'choice', with a reminder that under a selective system it's schools that do the choosing, not parents or pupils, while Shuggy deconstructs opinion polls that claim to show grammars' continuing popularity:

Like all opinion polls, it depends on how you frame the question. Perhaps they could try asking, "Would you like to see three secondary moderns established in every town?" and if this were coupled with the understanding that their children had a good chance of ending up in one of them - I suspect the results might be a little different.

There was an excellent Radio 4 series on the history of comprehensive education some months ago, and it contained a salutary reminder from a Tory MP that much of the pressure to end selection came from middle-class Conservative-voting parents, not quite rich enough to afford private education, who were scared stiff their offspring would end up in secondary moderns.

Having said all that, I don't think Labour has any grounds for complacency. I've mentioned before that I dislike the current government's emphasis on choice and specialisation at secondary level, not to mention its dalliance with private funding, which in some cases has meant putting state education into the hands of creationist zealots. I'm with Fiona Millar and the Compass people in wanting a Labour policy that puts its energies into creating what most parents really want: a high quality, genuinely comprehensive school in every community.

My sense is that we're as far from that goal as we were 10 years ago, despite all the city academies and specialist colleges. Growing up in the '60s, in a working/lower-middle-class home, I was fortunate enough to pass the 11 plus and go to the local grammar school, where an inspirational teacher pushed me into applying to university and then supported me through Cambridge entrance exams. As a democratic socialist I don't want to see a return to selection, but I would like to see the opportunities that were available to me extended to all children, whatever their background. Speaking as a parent of two children currently in the secondary system, I'm not at all confident that's happening.

I know the statistics tell a different story, and that more young people, from a greater variety of social backgrounds, are going on to higher education than in the past. But anecdotally I hear that the intake at Oxford and Cambridge colleges is increasingly middle-class, the product of private schools and the remaining grammars (and Cameron is right, these are mostly the preserve of the middle class these days), with my own generation of working-class Oxbridge students now looking like an atypical blip in the centuries-long tradition of educating the privileged.

We live in a fairly comfortable corner of eastern England, but even here I've been surprised at the low-to-middling aspirations of our local schools for their pupils. The single-sex former grammars attended by my son and daughter are better than many, but the co-ed former secondary modern that takes most of the children from the poorest estates seems depressingly focused on providing vocational skills and inculcating good behaviour: not much sense there of the comprehensive dream that you can do or be anything, whatever your start in life.

It wasn't long ago that the Tory election manifesto promised 'a grammar in every town'. In fact, this was a perversion of the dream of the original comprehensive pioneers, whose vision was a grammar school education for every child who wanted it. As more and more middle class parents take their children off into private education, and government pursues its misguided and divisive agenda of 'choice', I fear we're still a long way from achieving that radical vision.

Radical Islam and homophobic violence

Maryam Namazie says it like it is, in her speech to mark International Day Against Homophobia. No excuses, no 'root causes'. Just a depressing roll-call of violence and intolerance against people because of their sexuality, wherever radical Islam has the upper hand - in Iran, parts of Iraq and certain British mosques. Compulsory reading for 'understanders' and anti-secularists.

Monday 21 May 2007

A couple of reflections on The Islamist

I've just finished reading Ed Husain's The Islamist. The book has already received plenty of attention in the media and the blogosphere and I've mentioned it myself on a few occasions, but here are a couple of additional reflections.

Husain's early chapters, in which he describes disowning his parents' mild-mannered spiritual Islam for a succession of increasingly extreme Islamist groups, reminded me eerily of my own mis-spent evangelical Christian youth. There were many parallels: the attitude of callow superiority towards the faith of one's parents and elders, the continuous, restless search for more 'authentic' forms of belief (in my case, the charismatic movement), which of course involved looking down on the faction you'd just left, and the peculiar energy and rage that derives from repressed youthful (usually male) sexuality.

Of course, there was one key difference. Our prayer groups may have been annoyingly intense , but we had no interest in politics (that was all far too 'worldly') and certainly no thoughts about creating, or reviving, a Christian political order. To find a parallel to one of Husain's Islamist groupings, you would have had to cross-fertilise our school Christian Union, or charismatic house group, with the grubby band of International Socialists (this was the 1970s) who sold papers in the town centre on Saturdays.

On another issue: Husain's book is a powerful argument in favour of an open, plural and secular society, all the more powerful because its author is still a practising Muslim. His disillusioned account of life in theocratic Saudi Arabia should be read by all who yearn for a fusion of religion and the state. And looking back on his youthful experience of battling the authorities at his London further education college on behalf of Islamism, Husain is clear now about the secular values that allowed him the freedom to do so. Having described in lurid terms the casual antisemitism and homophobia in evidence at an event organised by the college Islamic Society, he goes on:

The following week the management commitee went to great lengths to drum into the Muslim students at college that homophobia, a new word for us, would not be tolerated. Homophobia and sexism, just like racism, were disciplinary offences. We, however, failed to understand that the secular liberal ideals that allowed Muslims to congregate at college in Britain were the very same ideals that tolerated homosexuality. It was secularism that allowed Muslims to build mosques, worship freely, and live in harmony - not Christianity. But my appreciation of secularism came only later in life; for now, we had Jews and gays to battle.

Those religious commentators who rail against secularism should take note. I agree with David Aaronovitch that The Islamist should be required reading for those, including Church of England bishops, whose efforts to 'understand' the roots of fundamentalist terror often lead them into positions of frightening naivety. Aaronovitch quotes Ed Husain's statement that Hizb ut-Tahrir, the most extreme of the factions with which he was involved, 'would argue that every British Muslim difficulty, from terrorism to poor community relations, was the result of British foreign policy', and notes that a recent Church of England report on global security appears naively to parrot this line. He cites evidence from Husain's book that it was events in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir that fired the righteous anger of his fellow-Islamists and comments: 'If there’s a common theme, it is the total absence of British foreign policy.'

Aaronovitch wonders why the bishops just don't get all of this and speculates that 'at a time of struggle with atheists' there 'may be a lack of willingness to confront the implacable nature of an ideology embarrassingly based on faith'.

Friday 18 May 2007

Support women's rights in Iraq

This - on religiously-motivated violence against women in Iraq - is profoundly depressing. It's of particular concern that the terrible incident described took place in Kurdistan, which some had hoped would provide a model of secular pluralism that the rest of Iraq might follow. Read the whole report by Katha Pollitt and follow the links to this website where you can sign this petition. Whatever your views on the war, the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq deserves the support of western progressives and feminists.

The views of Houzan Mahmoud, a key figure in the campaign, don't always make comfortable reading for those who supported the war on liberal and humanitarian grounds, but they deserve a hearing. She is equally critical of the occupation and of the sectarian and theocratic elements active in the insurgency and (in her view) in the new Iraqi government.

Certainly supporters of the war, and of the continuing US/UK military presence, need to ask themselves why the rights of women (and of sexual minorities, for that matter) haven't seemed to be as high a priority in Iraq as in the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I remember reading that secular Iraqi radicals were appalled at how UK military authorities made facilities available to reactionary religious parties in places like Basra, as part of the post-occupation reconstruction. This kind of strategy is a throwback to the patronising colonial habit (echoes of which are still evident in the UK government's approach to minority groups at home) of governing through self-appointed 'community' leaders - often the most conservative elements in the community - rather than putting in place the structures needed for a genuinely democratic non-sectarian politics. Another motive may have been suspicion, from the Bush administration particularly, of the leftist politics of the main secular parties in Iraq.

Whatever the reason, the ironic result may be an Iraq dominated by the kind of patriarchal theocratic politics that the west is seeking to oust in Afghanistan.

Thursday 17 May 2007

Our own public IDAHO

This is well worth supporting (via Maryam Namazie):

Here's some information from the IDAHO website:

In a world where 77 countries punish women, men and children because of their sexuality an International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) provides a platform for everyone to make a powerful statement to demand improvements for peoples quality of life overseas and in the UK.

The day can be used to raise awareness of homophobic issues that are negatively impacting on people’s lives and to also showcase success stories where a positive change has been achieved.

IDAHO is an inclusive campaign for individuals, campaigners, voluntary organisations, special interest groups, employers, businesses, politicians and public service providers to get involved and make a difference.

For evidence of why this day is needed, see here and here.

'Dear Martin...Yours Gordon'

So there isn't going to be a contest - the announcement coming on the very day that I (along with other Labour Party members) received a personalised letter from Gordon soliciting my vote, accompanied by a pamphlet full of pictures of our man with smiling schoolchildren - entitled 'Gordon Brown for Britain', further evidence of New Labour policy wonks' obsession with The West Wing ('Bartlett for America' being Leo's campaign slogan for Jed's original White House bid).

The absence of a contest is a shame, not because of the ammunition a 'coronation' hands to the Tories (hardly shining examples of democracy when it comes to choosing - and removing - leaders), but because it deprives us of a chance to have an open debate about Labour's future direction. Let's hope the elections for deputy leader offer some opportunity for reflection on where we go from here.

I don't hold any particular brief for Jon Cruddas but I think he has usefully focused attention on the rebuilding of party membership (shamefully allowed to wither on the vine over the last 10 years) and on how Labour can win back white working-class voters, like those in his own Dagenham constituency, who are tempted to turn to the BNP and no longer see Labour as their 'natural' home.

I don't agree with everything Jon says on the latter issue, but I find his thinking interestingly reminiscent of the penetrating analysis offered by Thomas Frank in What's The Matter With America? of how working-class voters in his native Kansas deserted the Democrats for the Republicans. In an age of shifting class and political identities, the Party needs to work hard to rebuild working-class support, rather than taking it for granted, while somehow holding on to the votes of the liberal middle class. No mean feat, and Gordon Brown will need to show some of the political deftness of his predecessor if he's to pull it off.

Wednesday 16 May 2007

Eurovision as a force for secularism?

I must admit I groaned when I heard that Palestine was making a bid to be represented at next year's Eurovision Song Contest. Imagine the tedious debates it will resurrect about the definition of 'Europe', not to mention the political storm over whether it's possible to have two nations representing the same strip of land.

But music journalist Jonathan Walton has a different take on it, arguing that a Palestinian presence in Eurovision could be just what the struggle for a peaceful, two-state solution needs. Writing in this month's issue of the world music magazine Songlines (print version only) he claims that 'as another symbolic, incremental step in the Palestinian bid for de facto international recognition as a legitimate, independent state, the effect would clearly be significant.'

More interestingly, Walton believes that the 'deepest ramifications' would be local, rather than global, with the contest providing 'a much-needed positive cheerleader' to unite ordinary Palestinians:

But perhaps more importantly a poster boy who is a musician - rather than a sheikh, politician or shahid - would give a huge boost to the cosmopolitan, secular-minded segment of Palestinian society whose vision of an open, pluralistic Palestine has been slowly losing ground to the rather more restrictive, militant, theocratic alternative promoted by Hamas. Like many Israelis, the 'Oslo Generation' of Palestinians - a young, often Western educated graduate generation who returned in the optimistic atmosphere of the mid-90s following the Oslo Accords - find the social model of Europe and the US far more appealing than that of their Middle Eastern neighbours. Participation in Eurovision would be one small step towards strengthening their vision.

Eurovision as a force for an independent, secular Palestine? Who knows. Mind you, it seems like a trivial sideshow in the light of these developments.

Tuesday 15 May 2007

Support the campaign to free Haleh Esfandiari

The new button at the bottom right-hand side of this page refers to the imprisonment in Tehran of 67 year-old Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari. You can read more about the case at the Human Rights Watch website. You can sign the petition for her release here (via Harry's Place).

An ally in the fight against shoddy thinking

Thanks to the indispensable Mick Hartley, I've just discovered David Thompson's excellent blog, which tackles some of the issues that I've tried to cover here of late, such as anti-secularism, 'root causes' thinking and bogus attempts to identify an equivalence of fundamentalisms. Further to these recent posts, it was particularly satisfying to come across Thompson's detailed, painstaking rebuttals of the opinions of Madeleine Bunting and Karen Armstrong. Recommended reading.

Monday 14 May 2007

Turkish secularists deserve our support

Yesterday saw another huge rally in Turkey in support of maintaining the country's secular constitution. According to the BBC, at least a million Turks rallied at the seafront in Izmir, concerned about the Islamic agenda of the ruling AK Party and its candidate for president, Abdulla Gul. Andrew Sullivan comments:

The pictures tell you everything: an exuberant, peaceful massive demonstration in a Muslim country for secular democracy. It seems to me that the most important ally the United States now has is Turkey: critical for maintaining the survival of Kurdistan; critical for stemming the tide of Islamism in the Muslim world; pivotal in helping Europe integrate its new Muslim immigrants in the ways of pluralism and secularism. But let's stop from a moment to look at all these people in the near east, loving democracy, cherishing freedom from theocratic diktats, celebrating the equality of women. Know hope. Freedom is more powerful than fundamentalism. In the long run.

I agree: though I wish Andrew had chosen a better headline for his piece than 'Muslims for Secularism'. Some of the demonstrators may well have been Muslims who simply prefer to live in a secular, plural society than under sharia law, but others were certainly not, or at the very least would prefer not to have this aspect of their identity singled out. It's rather like describing a 'Stop the War' rally in London as 'Christians for Peace' because it took place in what's still an officially Christian country. The habit of describing people as 'Muslims' simply because they live in a particular country is surely part of the problem that rallies in support of secularism are seeking to address (see here and here for previous discussion of this issue).

Still, it's nice to see some western support for Turkey's secularists. It would be even nicer if there were a bit more from the Left. You'd think that western Leftists, faced with these exuberant outbursts in favour of pluralism and women's rights in the heart of the Middle East, would be cheering them on, especially as Turkish left and centre-left parties were among the main organisers. Not so The New Statesman. Instead, it has Rageh Omaar bemoaning the 'nauseating hypocrisy' of western liberals over the role of the Turkish army in maintaining secularism. OK, so the situation in Turkey is not straightforward, but Omaar ignores the fact that the demonstrators have stated that they support both secularism and democracy, and that they are opposed to the idea of a military coup to oust the Islamists from government.

Omaar is also concerned that if the AKP are sidelined then 'moderate Muslims' will have no voice. Well, that's not strictly true: they'll have no voice as Muslims, but should the western Left really be supporting the growth of confessional, communalist parties, based on sectarian interests - something (as I've argued before) we would resist here at home - rather than broad-based, secular democratic parties?

Restrained and unrestrained anti-secularism

Last week I took issue with William Dalrymple over his comparison of current western foreign policy with the travails of the British Empire in the 19th century. I mentioned that Dalrymple was one of a number of liberal Catholic commentators who can often be found these days either trying to 'understand' the root causes of Islamist outrage, or alternately engaging in tirades against contemporary secularism. (Isn't it interesting how those two tendencies frequently go together?)

This weekend saw articles in the media by two other members of this loose-knit group: Madeline Bunting and Cristina Odone, writing in The Guardian and The Observer respectively.

Credit where credit's due: Bunting's article was one of her more balanced pieces and was refreshingly free from her usual tendency to condemn as an 'Enlightenment fundamentalist' or 'aggressive liberal' anyone who dares to criticise any aspect of contemporary Islam. Mind you, she was interviewing Ed Husain about his new book The Islamist and it would have been difficult to take issues with criticisms of Islam voiced by a practising Muslim, and what's more one who has inside experience of fundamentalist Islamism. So most of the article is a fairly accurate account of Husain's experience and of his own conclusions from it.

Bunting reins in her usual attitudes with admirable restraint until the very last paragraph, when she can't resist this gentle dig at her interviewee:

One suspects the naivety which took him into Hizb-ut Tahrir has blinded him as to how his story will be used to buttress positions hostile to many things he holds dear - his own faith and racial tolerance, for example. A glance at the blog response to a Husain piece in the Telegraph reveals how rightwing racism and anti-Islamic sentiment are feasting on his testimony.

I find this suspicion of naivety faintly patronising and reminiscent of some of the reviews of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book, which also appeared to suggest that Muslims who criticise Islam are somehow responsible for how their opinions are received - and should maybe think twice before speaking out. Bunting's comment about the blog response may be accurate but she never allows that there might be a legitimate liberal, non-racist critique of aspects of Islam.

Odone's piece, in which she reflects on a recent encounter with Richard Dawkins, is much less nuanced. She tries to pin on him the kind of labels - dogmatic, extremist - that he attaches to religious believers. In other words, this is another of those attempts to characterise atheists and secularists as being just as 'fundamentalist' as those they oppose. The article starts to go badly wrong when Odone calls Dawkins a 'secular extremist', thus making the familiar but lazy confusion of atheism with secularism. How often does it have to be pointed out that you don't have to be an atheist to believe that in a modern, liberal and plural society, religion should not have a privileged place in the public sphere? And 'extreme' though he may be in his views, the implicit parallel with religious extremism doesn't work because Dawkins doesn't seek to impose his views with threats and violence.

Odone's confusion leads her to the peculiar conclusion that Dawkins' public criticisms of religion are somehow a threat to religious freedom. She thinks secularists and atheists aren't much of a danger in the US, where they're heavily outnumbered by believers. However:

In secular Britain, faith-bashing carries far more resonance and risks causing far greater damage. In this country, belief is a minority practice and believers a persecuted lot. The rabid attacks by Dawkins and his camp-followers spur even the most mild-mannered Christian, Muslim or Jew into a hard-line position.

This is overwrought in the extreme. Is Odone saying that atheists like Dawkins shouldn't be allowed a public platform because it might upset believers? And exactly what kind of 'damage' can a few books and TV programmes do to 'faith'? As for the statement that believers are a persecuted minority: well, we've been here before and, in a country of state-funded faith schools and bishops in the Lords, it hardly deserves a serious response.

But it's the final sentence in this paragraph, in which Odone spells out what she means by 'causing...damage', that is the most astonishing. She seems to be saying that non-believers shouldn't speak out because it might provoke otherwise 'mild-mannered' believers to take a 'hard-line' position. Oh, I see: if reactionary Christians get a TV programme taken off, or conservative Sikhs force a play to be cancelled, or fundamentalist Muslims threaten death over a few cartoons - then it's not their fault, it's the fault of those unbelievers like Dawkins who dare to disagree with them. What a strange argument to find articulated in a liberal newspaper!

It gets worse:

(T)he only hope for tolerance is for him to publish a stream of new titles - The God Solution, The Selfless Gene - and address cosy church groups as an apostate who has seen the light. With their loudest persecutor silenced, believers would see no need for hard-line posturing. They would once again feel like ordinary citizens rather than a hunted species that must bare its fangs to survive.

So religious fundamentalism is all Dawkins' fault. And what about that final sentence: believers a 'hunted species'. By whom? When was the last time a believer had to go into hiding because of death threats from atheists or secularists? As for 'bare its fangs', now that's threatening language. And how incredibly aggressive for a column written from a supposedly christian perspective.

As I've often wondered before: whatever happened to the 'liberal' in liberal Christianity?

Friday 11 May 2007

The Blair years: a personal reflection

Tony Blair's announcement of his departure has been followed by a predictable slew of hastily-composed retrospectives. It's far too early for a proper assessment of his complex legacy, but here are a few personal reflections to be going on with.

I re-joined theLabour Party on the day that Tony Blair became its leader, partly because I believed that here, at last, was the person who would reinvigorate the Party after its decade and a half in the doldrums. But it was also because of a close personal identification - being of roughly the same generation as Blair and having shared the same political trajectory, from Bennite, CND-supporting Labour leftism in the early '80s, through frustration with the futile years of opposition and oppositionalism, then support for Neil Kinnock's reforming leadership and frustration when even that didn't deliver the necessary shift in electoral fortunes. (Incidentally, I've always disagreed strongly with the revisionist rewriting of history that claims John Smith could have won in 1997, and that there was no need for Labour to change so dramatically. Look up Philip Gould's book and read the polling evidence that deep public distrust of Labour didn't start to shift until Tony Blair made major changes to Labour's policies and structures.)

As a parent and primary school governor during Blair's time as PM, I've seen the huge investment in schools and improvements in standards at first hand - though I've been less happy with his efforts at secondary level, which have been driven by a mistaken belief that parents want 'choice' rather than a good, genuinely comprehensive school in every locality. In my professional life, I've seen the unprecedented investment in Sure Start and other initiatives aimed at poor children and families. Like Polly Toynbee, though, I've often been frustrated with Labour for not shouting more loudly about these achievements, and with the electorate for not giving the government credit for them, and for assuming that they just dropped out of the sky.

Unlike some on the Left, I don't think Blair's foreign policy has been a total disaster, and I think in the longterm he will be remembered for positive interventions such as those in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. As for Iraq: well, it's frustrating that the lies and spin about the reasons for war obscured the genuine humanitarian case for removing a dictatorial thug who was murdering his own people and threatening his neighbours. And maybe Blair could have used his influence in Washington to prevent the disastrous mismanagement of the peace that followed the stunning success of the military campaign - or maybe not.

Despite my great admiration for him, I think one of Tony's failings is that he has never had an instinctive sympathy for the liberal and democratic traditions of the British Left. Sometimes, as in the case of ID cards and House of Lords reform, his instincts have been paternalist and centralising, rather than liberal and democratic.

But don't forget the minimum wage, low unemployment, devolution, Northern Ireland, civil partnerships and, as Polly Toynbee says in today's Guardian, perhaps his greatest achievement has been shifting the terms of the debate, so that even the Tories now have to fight on Labour's traditional ground of public services and social justice. Thanks to Tony, you could say, we are all social democrats now.


You can't move for instant-epitaphs on the Blair years today. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has had a go. While praising the PM for some of his achievements, the Archbish agrees to differ over Iraq, and thanks Tone for his support for organised religion. According to Ekklesia:

Referring to the growth of what he sees as a narrow-agenda form of secularism, Dr Williams went on: "The Church of England, in common with all people of faith, is grateful that over the past ten years the Prime Minister has refused the demands of some to close down the space in our society within which both vigorous debate and the full diversity of religious conviction can find voice and be expressed."

I can't better Ekklesia's wry comment on this:

Others will argue that bishops in an unelected House of Lords and religious selection in publicly-funded schools are not so much spaces of open debate but archaic privileges which narrow participation.

Gone, obviously, are the heady days of 'Faith in the City' and liberation theology, when you might expect a Christian leader to provide a critique of government policy in the light of Christian teaching about justice, compassion etc. Instead Tony is praised for defending the interests of Religion Inc, as if it were just another interest group competing for government support.

Thursday 10 May 2007

Hitchens hits the mark

Christopher Hitchens provides the perfect antidote to the William Dalrymple article mentioned in my last post (via Mick Hartley). He's writing for Vanity Fair about a recent return visit to Finsbury Park, where he grew up, and discussing the way the area has become a breeding-ground for British jihadists. As always with Hitchens, there's much that's quotable, so take time to read the whole thing.

Hitchens reports conversations with Hanif Kureishi and Monica Ali in which both independently emphasise the virulent anti-semitism of the new young fundamentalists. He also watches a video of Channel 4's documentary Undercover Mosque, shot in fundamentalist Islamic centers in Birmingham and London:

And there it all is: foaming, bearded preachers calling for crucifixion of unbelievers, for homosexuals to be thrown off mountaintops, for disobedient and "deficient" women to be beaten into submission, and for Jewish and Indian property and life to be destroyed. "You have to bomb the Indian businesses, and as for the Jews, you kill them physically," as one sermonizer, calling himself Sheikh al-Faisal, so prettily puts it.

Hitchens follows this up with a riposte to those, like Dalrymple, who seek to blame Islamist terrorism on western policy:

It was argued for a while that the 7/7 perpetrators were victims of unemployment and poverty, until their remains were identified and it became clear that most of them came from educated and reasonably well-off backgrounds. The excuses then abruptly switched, and we were asked to believe that it was Tony Blair's policy in Iraq and Afghanistan that motivated the killers. Suppose the latter to be true. It would still be the case that they belong to a movement that hates Jews and Indians and all kuffar, or "unbelievers": a fanatical sect that believes itself entitled to use deadly violence at any time. The roots of violence, that is to say, are in the preaching of it, and the sanctification of it.


A bad history lesson

'A bloody warning to today's imperial occupiers'. That's travel writer William Dalrymple's verdict on the Indian mutiny of 1857, in a provocative article in today's Guardian. According to the strapline for the piece, 'echoes of the arrogance and lies that sparked insurgency could not be clearer'.

In an earlier post I counted Dalrymple among those liberal Catholic commentators (the foremost being Madeleine Bunting, but the list also includes Karen Armstrong, Christine Odone and Paul Vallely) who have attempted to 'understand' the feelings of Muslims following events such as the publication of the Danish cartoons. As I said then, this show of empathy derives from an admirable Christian instinct to identify the good in other religions, even if one could wish that it were accompanied by an equally strong liberal instinct to defend freedom of expression.

However, I think Dalrymple's latest article goes way beyond understandable inter-faith empathy. It uses dodgy historical parallels as part of an attempt to 'understand' the 'resistance' in Iraq and possibly Afghanistan - though it's in the nature of these attempts to find 'equivalence' that their authors are strangely reluctant to come clean about exactly what they're saying.

I've been an admirer of Dalrymple's writing in the past: White Mughals was a superb work of historical re-creation and I enjoyed his TV documentary on the music of Sufism. But in his most recent book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, which has just been published in paperback (now there's a coincidence), and in this article, he has tried to draw some pretty questionable 'lessons' from Britain's imperial past for today's conflict with political Islam.

Whatever virtues Dalrymple's argument might have are undermined by the use of a lazy rhetorical device to create false parallels between past and present realities. For example, he repeatedly uses the word 'insurgency' to describe resistance to 19th century imperialism, and employs the term 'new conservatives' (just like today's neo-conservatives - geddit?) to refer to the evangelical Christians who were apparently increasingly influential in imperial policy - not to mention labelling a parliamentary paper of 1856 a 'dodgy dossier'. The trouble with this kind of anachronistic levelling, besides the fact that it glosses over real historical differences, is that it doesn't actually tell you anything. It's like rebranding Japanese kamikaze pilots as 'suicide bombers' in an attempt to draw parallels with today's jihadists - when in fact their aims and ideologies are utterly different. It can be useful for comic effect - as when The Life of Brian gave us anti-Roman zealots (the Judean People's Liberation Front) speaking in the language of a Marxist splinter group - but serious historical analysis? I think not.

Dalrymple claims that 'there is much about British imperial adventures in the east at this time, and the massive insurgency it provoked, which is uneasily familiar to us today.' Really? Can we really draw useful parallels between the attempts of a Victorian nation to hold on to its empire, and today's campaigns by western democracies to rid Afghanistan of fundamentalist extremism or Iraq of a fascist dictator?

Dalrymple states that under British rule in India 'local laws which offended Christian sensibilities were abrogated - the burning of widows, for instance, was banned'. I'm not enough of a historian to know whether Dalrymple's attempt to characterise the Empire as a Christian campaign to suppress Islam and Hinduism is justified, but what exactly is he saying here? Does he think that banning widow-burning was a bad thing, or that it's only Christian sensibilities that might be offended by it? Is he making some implicit link with the attempt by Britain and the US to roll back the oppression of women under the Taliban - and once again, is he saying that's a bad thing?

This kind of nudge-nudge parallel-drawing is a consistent and irritating feature of the article, as here:

Though it reflected many deeply held political and economic grievances, particularly the feeling that the heathen foreigners were interfering with a part of the world to which they were alien, the uprising was consistently articulated as a defensive action against the inroads missionaries and their ideas were making in India, combined with a generalised fight for freedom from western occupation.

So William, are you saying that there's a parallel here with Iraqi insurgents - and if so, do you think that their 'defensive action' is justified as part of a 'generalised fight for freedom from western occupation'- rather than being the desperate actions of an increasingly isolated minority of murderous fundamentalists, disappointed by the results of UN-backed elections?

Dalrymple discusses the attempt by British imperialists to see the Indian mutiny as a Muslim conspiracy:

Like some of the ideas propelling recent adventures in the east, this was a ridiculous and bigoted oversimplification of a more complex reality. For, as today, western politicians found it easier to blame "Muslim fanaticism" for the bloodshed they had unleashed than to examine the effects of their own foreign policies. Western politicians were apt to cast their opponents in the role of "incarnate fiends", conflating armed resistance to invasion and occupation with "pure evil".

Hang on, exactly what kind of recent 'bigoted oversimplification' are we talking about here? Maybe the argument that the Taliban were creating an oppressive fundamentalist state that was a base for the export of mass terrorism? And how many times does it have to be stated that the fanatical death cult that is Bin Ladenism uses western 'foreign policies' as a convenient pretext for its murderous activities. To quote Ed Husain:

When the political pretexts of Palestine and Iraq have been dealt with, Wahhabi-inspired militants will turn to other social grievances. Drinking alcohol, 'impropriety', gambling, cohabitation, inappropriate dress - these and a host of miscellaneous others will become excuses for jihad, for martyrdom, feeding the tumour of Islamist domination which grows in the Wahhabi and Islamist mind.

Finally, whatever your definition of 'pure evil', surely blowing up dozens of your fellow citizens in a crowded market-place comes pretty close?

Dalrymple ends his article with a claim that the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have 'long been closely and dangerously intertwined.' Well, maybe, but what does that tell us? It looks like an attempt to excuse contemporary extremism by laying the blame on things that 'we' did 150 years ago, rather than accepting that the perpetrators of terror might be agents in their own right and bear some responsibility for their actions. Then there's a familiar attempt to see fundamentalism on every side:

In a curious but very concrete way, the fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic faiths have always needed each other to reinforce each other's prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the others.

Once again, this exercise in western self-flagellation conveniently lets the extremists off the hook: if we're all to blame, then nobody's to blame.

Maybe Dalrymple should stick to travel writing, rather than engaging in this kind simplistic historical analysis, which can only give comfort to the apologists for reactionary fundamentalism.

Tuesday 8 May 2007

Would you vote for these men?

All smiles at Stormont yesterday as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were sworn in as Northern Ireland's first minister and deputy first minister respectively. It's the picture we never thought we'd see, etc, etc, and as he contemplates retirement Tony Blair should certainly be proud of his contribution to the peace process. But if Northern Ireland has come a long way in the last few years, there's still a long way to go before it's a 'normal' country with normal, non-sectarian politics. I sometimes wonder if those of us on the other side of the Irish Sea aren't a little patronising as we cast warm, approving glances at events across the water, happy to celebrate political arrangements there that we'd never tolerate in our own backyard. Put it this way: would you be happy if either of these two were the elected leader of your country?

Religion in the media revisited

Yesterday I reported that some religious believers were upset because the BBC failed to broadcast their recent inter-faith debate at the British Library, while some time ago I commented on a complaint by bishops that there wasn't enough religion on Radio 1. In both cases it appeared that believers regarded guaranteed media slots as their right.

It's good to find the progressive Christian website Ekklesia making the same point. Apparently they received a 'gentle chiding' from the Church of England Media Office for the way they reported the bishops' call. Seems the C of E weren't asking for guaranteed 'God slots' after all, but for 'proper coverage of religion across the board'.

Ekklesia's Simon Barrow responds:

So I wrote back: "If you are not asking for a discreet space on R1, what are you asking for? It's still primarily a music station. What do you want it to do? Play Christian music? Have Christian DJs? Invite religious spokespeople on?"

No response so far.

Barrow then provides an insight into the origins of the bishops' complaint about Radio 1, which has some interesting parallels with the fuss over the British Library event:

The fuss blew up, so I gather, because Radio 1 didn't cover Archbishop Rowan Williams' Easter sermon, unlike other networks. They just didn't regard it as newsworthy enough - and they make the point that it did receive treatment across the BBC radio spectrum.

The fact is, what an archbishop says is not necessarily of note to a post-Christendom society just because he is an archbishop. Whereas in the past, in an era more deferential to religious institutions per se, it might have been. The onus of the churches is to respond to that change, to connect, to see what they are doing and saying in a framework other than "religious issues", and not to be seen to be complaining all the time that they "deserve coverage".


Monday 7 May 2007

An equivalence of extremisms?

Last week the British Library hosted a discussion between Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to celebrate the library's current exhibition of sacred texts from the three religions. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg, the event seems to have been a fruitful exploration of commonalities and differences between the faiths.

However, some of those involved couldn't resist a dig at the supposedly secularist media for not broadcasting the event. According to the Independent Catholic News website, Lord Bragg 'voiced disappointment at how faith is sidelined in public debate in the media' and suggested that 'mainstream radio programmes were not interested in broadcasting the discussion'. Faith sidelined in the media? Does that sound right? What about the guaranteed slots for Thought for the Day, Songs of Praise, Sunday Worship, not to mention the regular discussion of religious issues on programmes like Bragg's own on Radio 4? Surely this is something of an over-reaction to not getting your event broadcast?

The Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks agreed with Melvyn, accusing the media of not wanting to hear stories of believers of different faiths getting along:

They want to know something that resembles the public spectacles of Rome in its decadence, they want to throw Christians to lions, or lions to Christians, and so the voices that gain resonance in our culture and in the media are extreme secularists or religious extremists. And they're very comfortable with one another because the extreme secularists can point to the religious voices and say they're fanatics and the religious extremists can point to the secularists and say they're totally atheist decadentsetc, etc.

He may be right - 'Religious leaders get along' doesn't sound like much of a headline. But I hate the way he falls into the 'plague on both your houses' approach that is becoming a lazy rhetorical trope among anti-secularists (rather like 'aggressive secularism'). Seems to me like a neat way of avoiding having to condemn specifically religious extremists ('Ah well, there are fundamentalists on both sides...').

These sideswipes are instances of two key features in what I have defined as 'faith-ism' or religionism: firstly, a blurring of the differences between religions in order to present a united front to defend Religion plc or Faith Inc, and secondly the need constantly and defensively to pick a fight with the common enemy of secularism, mistakenly perceived to be growing in influence and vociferousness.

Coincidentally Martin Amis' review of Ed Husain's new book about his time as an Islamist foot-soldier (via Mick Hartley) also picks up this point about a false equivalence of extremisms. Amis likes the book but accuses Husain of painting a 'false dichotomy' :

He wants to be “free from the fanaticism of secularism or religion”; he wants to “oppose hatred of all forms, secular and religious”. In this view, fundamentalists are on one wing, atheists are on the other, and the supposed centre is occupied by moderate believers and a few laconic agnostics.

Amis takes issue:

Secular fanaticism, secular hatred – these equivalences are fictions. The humanist pitbull Richard Dawkins, I am confident, has very few affinities with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. One can afford to be crude about this. When Islamists crash passenger planes into buildings, or hack off the heads of hostages, they shout, “God is great!” When secularists do that kind of thing, what do they shout?

'Nuff said, I think.

As a footnote, today's Guardian carries a long diatribe by Madeleine Bunting against the 'New Atheists' (Dawkins, Dennett, et al) who just don't understand religion. As someone who is keen to keep clear the distinction between secularism and atheism, I don't want to get in the middle of this one. However, I found Bunting's defence of religion avowedly 'faith-ist', in that she didn't argue in favour of a specific religion, but for 'religion' generally. Moreover, like most religionists these days, she didn't attempt to argue in favour of religion because it might be true, but because it's good for you. Arguing for faith in these utilitarian, consumerist terms seems to me to be a slippery slope.

Good news for 'West Wing'/Sorkin fans

The other week I was wondering when Aaron Sorkin's new TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip would be coming to the UK, thus providing some comfort for 'West Wing' fans experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Well, the good news is that we don't have long to wait: according to The Sunday Times, Channel 4 starts showing the series this summer (not details of dates yet). The less good news is that it looks unlikely that NBC will be commissioning a second series.

Saturday 5 May 2007

Christians offended by other Christians

Further to this post, it appears that last Sunday's BBC radio broadcast from the Catholic Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in the predominantly gay district of Castro, San Francisco, has angered some conservative Christians.

It seems the spirit of Mary Whitehouse is alive and well in the organisation she founded - the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, now rebranded as Mediawatch UK (as Shuggy says, be very suspicious of anything with 'watch' in its title) - and the Christian Institute, a fundamentalist organisation which holds that 'the Bible is without error not only when it speaks of salvation, its own origins, values, and religious matters, but it is also without error when it speaks of history and the cosmos'. According to a report in this week's Tablet the spokesman for Mediawatch has stated: 'Having this particular service I think will cause offence to people who feel such practices are wrong and taught as such in Holy Scripture'.

So the BBC shouldn't broadcast a service by one group of Christians because it 'offends' another group of Christians. Not because it's immoral (they seem to have given up on that line of argument, thankfully), but because it might upset somebody who holds a different set of beliefs. If you follow that line, then the BBC shouldn't broadcast any religious service, in case it causes 'offence' to the millions of atheists and agnostics who believe that such practices are wrongheaded.

The boot's on the other foot in another report in this week's Tablet, which claims that lesbian and gay Catholics attending regular Masses designated for them at a church in central London have found the actions of protestors 'intimidatory and offensive'. Apparently members of the group Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice have been disrupting prayers and sprinkling holy water to 'cleanse' the church of 'defilement'.

Reluctant as I am to arbitrate in this dispute between two groups of believers, I know which of these activities I'd find more 'offensive', not to say unchristian.

Thursday 3 May 2007

Teaching 'happiness' is anti-educational

Schoolchildren should be given 'happiness' classes, according to Richard Layard, a Labour peer and LSE professor. He wants all state school pupils to receive receive tuition in 'how to be happy' up to the age of 18 and for their progress in the subject to feature in university applications. Apparently this follows an initiative by Wellington College, the £23,000-a-year Berkshire boarding school, to run classes in 'positive psychology' and 'the science of wellbeing.'

Like the teaching union spokesperson interviewed alongside Lord Layard on this morning's Today programme, I agree with his diagnosis of the problem - worrying levels of teenage depression, a test-crammed curriculum - but not with the proposed 'cure'. Despite what Layard and the positive psychologists claim, happiness is not a 'skill' you can teach. It's a by-product of other things - fulfilling relationships, stimulating and creative work, a rich intellectual and cultural life, a sense of social purpose - many of which lie beyond the scope of education.

Education's main contribution to 'happiness' (from a humanist perspective) is to introduce children to the richness of culture in its broadest sense - historical, political, creative, scientific - and to help them develop the understanding and skills to participate fully in that culture. The kind of 'learning' that Layard wants to impose on children, rather like the classes in 'emotional literacy' that the government seems keen on, is driven by an anti-cultural, anti-intellectual bias that seeks to empty the curriculum of content and to substitute learning to 'feel' for critical thinking. I'm not usually a fan of Frank Furedi but on this I think he's right:

In pushing emotional literacy, what some teachers are really doing is abandoning teaching. They are giving up and talking about emotions instead, so that children value all this non-discipline-led activity more than maths, English or science. What is amazing about this is that time and time again, research says that it does not work.

The danger of this kind of content-lite, therapeutic approach to learning, which I saw creeping into adult education in the 80s (no more WEA politics and history, lots of 'skills' and 'personal development') and now seems to be encroaching on schools, is that it may seem nice and warm and liberal, even radical, but it's actually deeply conservative, in effect if not in intention. As has often been pointed out, Mussolini's education policy placed a startlingly similar emphasis on feelings and processes and similarly downgraded critical engagement with knowledge and ideas. Gramsci, on the other hand, believed (rightly in my view) that the priority of radical educators was to introduce students to the breadth of human culture and to empower them to become critical contributors to it (see Harold Entwistle's 1979 book, now seemingly unavailable, Antonio Gramsci: conservative schooling for radical politics).

The perils of trying to 'understand' the motives for terror

That's the great thing about a liberal newspaper like The Guardian, I suppose. If something they publish makes you want to fling the paper across the room, you don't usually have to wait long before another item comes along to provide a blistering riposte. Catherine Bennett's column in today's G2 section, headed 'Why should we have to justify ourselves to the people who want to bomb us?' is a coruscating attack on those who seek to 'understand' Islamist terrorists' disaffection from western society. Bennett's piece is the perfect antidote to the 'blame the west' attitude of Steve Bell's cartoon the other day, and also a much-needed dissection of the kind of unconscious western fascination with the values of political Islam that I noted in this post.

The whole article deserves to be read, but here's a taster. Bennett quotes the 'thwarted terrorist Jawad Akbar who fantasised ... about slaughter on the Ministry of Sound dance floor: "No one can turn around and say, 'Oh, they were innocent', those slags dancing around. Do you understand what I mean?" She goes on:

Some people do. Ed Husain, author of a revealing and alarming account of his experiences inside radical Islam, said of the "slags" comment: "That was me, man. That's classic Hizb-ut-Tahrir rhetoric." In his new book, The Islamist, Husain identifies a professed horror of western decadence as the next, infinitely promising excuse for Islamist murder. "When the political pretexts of Palestine and Iraq have been dealt with," he writes, "Wahhabi-inspired militants will turn to other social grievances. Drinking alcohol, 'impropriety', gambling, cohabitation, inappropriate dress - these and a host of miscellaneous others will become excuses for jihad, for martyrdom, feeding the tumour of Islamist domination which grows in the Wahhabi and Islamist mind."

Since - as Husain suggests - there can never be enough modesty, celibacy and sobriety to placate Islamist critics of our national slaggishness, you might consider their complaints on this score no more worthy of investigation than the precise adjustments that might make our free and easy voting system more acceptable to paternalist fundamentalists, or the amount of tweaking that would bring the British legal system into line with that of, say, Saudi Arabia.

But where Islamist complaints about immorality and women's sexual behaviour are concerned, there are calls for self-examination, for all the world as if we brought the stash of weedkiller on ourselves. On the Today programme yesterday, Patrick Mercer, formerly the Tory homeland security spokesman, said: "We have got to understand why we look offensive to those who choose to suborn our society." Why have we got to? It's like an innocent woman asking what she did to incite her rapist. Was it the short skirt?

We heard it before, after 7/7. "I feel a growing sympathy for so-called 'radical' Muslims who reject western civilisation," Norman Lebrecht wrote in the London Evening Standard that summer. "It does not take much to see where things have gone wrong. Binge drinking is accepted as a teenage norm, promiscuity as preferable to chastity, and wealth as something to be flaunted in the face of the poor." Around the same time, Bel Mooney, displeased by a bikini advertisement, sought a kind of enlightenment from the acts of sociopathic Islamist fundamentalists (who would certainly have disapproved of her having any views at all). "Surely," she wrote in the Mail on Sunday, "it would be useful if we could use the current crisis to train a searchlight on the way we live now."

Leave aside the disgustingness of taking moral instruction from the advocates of mass murder, or those from the Saudi Arabian school of sexual etiquette, and there is still a problem with their qualifications. For some reason their very outrage seems to confer authority. Writers whose suspicions would be instantly aroused by, say, a smarmy TV evangelist who seemed obsessively interested in fornication, or a politician who relied on divine inspiration as a justification for war, seem to have no difficulty listening to the strictures of angry young men whose primary moral interest appears to be in telling women what to wear on their heads.

Bennett is surely right to see signs, in these expressions of sympathy for Islamist disgust, of a backlash against feminism: the same kind of thing was evident in some of the responses to Faye Turney's imprisonment by the Iranians a few weeks back. Incidentally, Ed Husain's book The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left , mentioned in the article, is published this week and has already received glowing reviews. Looks like compulsory reading.

Wednesday 2 May 2007

History and identity in Jaffa and Salonica

I finally got round to reading Adam LeBor's City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, and the reviewers are right, it really is one of the best recent books on Israel/Palestine, and probably the one book I'd give to someone who hadn't read anything on the topic. The way LeBor tells the story of the last hundred years through the history of one city, and the stories of particular individuals and families on both 'sides', is magnificent. Like all good historical works, City of Oranges makes you want to find out more: about Ottoman Palestine, the Arabic-speaking Sephardic culture of north Africa and Iraq, and the socialist and modernist ideals that inspired the founders of Tel Aviv. LeBor provides no easy answers, but what he does is enable the reader to enter into the experience of groups and communities with radically different perspectives, a process of imaginative sympathy that must surely be part of any attempt to find a long-term solution to the conflict.

LeBor's book is the best historical work that I've read since Mark Mazower's Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, which also took a single city as a prism through which to explore important issues, in that case Europe's Muslim and Jewish heritage, the transfer of ethnic populations, and the Holocaust. Mazower's book conveys powerfully the brutality of uprooting and annhilating communities and cultures that had existed for hundreds of years. (His book Inside Hitler's Greece is also recommended reading, if you want to understand the everyday cruelties of life under fascism and the achievements and weaknesses of partisan resistance.)

It struck me that both LeBor's and Mazower's books demonstrate, among many other things, the tragic consequences of reducing individuals to singular identities. Although it's possible to romanticise the past, 'old' Jaffa and Salonica both represented the possibility of hybrid identities and cultures, while the historical events that transformed them forced their inhabitants to choose one identity: Jew or Arab, Christian or Muslim. Although LeBor resists any easy optimism, he ends his book with hopeful signs of Jews and Arabs in Tel Aviv/Jaffa at least beginning to listen to each other's stories and with their wish that Israel/Palestine can one day become a 'normal' country, in which ethnic and cultural identities are fluid not fixed, and a cause for celebration and connection, not division.

The dangers of political naivety among faith leaders

With local elections across the UK tomorrow, the liberal and left-learning blogosphere has been noisy with discussion about the best way to ensure that the British National Party (BNP) doesn't gain ground.

To give them their due, the Christian churches have always been vocal in their opposition to the poisonous racism of the BNP. However, Jonathan Bartley over at Ekklesia warns that recent statements by some church leaders about threats to Britain's identity as a 'Christian nation' and dire warnings about the rising tide of secularism may have accidentally provided ammunition for the far right (see this post and follow the links back). 'The uncomfortable fact', argues Bartley, is that this kind of rhetoric 'puts the Church into the position of arguing the same political point about national identity as the BNP', and it seems the latter have not been slow to exploit it, helping to establish a 'Christian Council of Britain': 'The goal is apparently to appeal to those in the population who identify with Christianity, but feel panicked both by "liberal secularism" and the growth of Islam.'

Like Bartley, I would argue that political naivety rather than anything more sinister is at work here. But right now there seems to be a lot of that naivety around among Christian leaders. I was out of the country when Iran released the British sailors, so I didn't get a chance to comment on the astonishing statement by Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali. According to The Times:

A leading Church of England bishop has claimed the Iranian president showed a better understanding of “moral and spiritual” values at the end of the naval hostage crisis than Britain’s political leaders.

Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, contrasted the words of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad favourably with Britain’s “free-floating” attitudes.

The bishop said that, watching the release of the British sailors and marines last week, “I saw on the one hand what Iran was doing, and what the president [of Iran] said had much to do with the moral and spiritual tradition of their country.

“The president talked about the religious background to the release, with reference to the Prophet’s birthday and the passing over of Christ. What struck me was that if there were any values on the British side they were free-floating and not anchored in a spiritual and moral tradition.

The bishop's gullibility in mistaking the cynical, theatrical gesture of a discredited, authoritarian politician for anything moral or spiritual is breathtaking. It bears comparison with certain western politicians who went to visit Saddam and came away praising his 'statesmanship'. Is the bishop unaware that the 'moral and spiritual tradition' of Ahmadinejad's Iran includes executing homosexuals, stoning adulterers and repressing signs of dissent? Give me 'free-floating' (I suppose he means liberal) attitudes any day.

Nazir-Ali's statement also provides evidence of two other (linked) trends in contemporary Christian religiosity that I have noted before. One is a 'faith-ism' that appears to believe that any faith is better than no faith, and the other is an unconscious fascination with and envy of the 'Other' of renacent Islam.

Tuesday 1 May 2007

'Terror' cartoon ignores the obvious

What to make of Steve Bell's cartoon in today's Guardian (above - accompanied by the caption 'Fertile Ground')?

Presumably some reference is intended to yesterday's conviction of five men for conspiracy to cause mass murder using fertiliser bombs. OK, so we expect cartoonists to cast a satirical eye on the news, rather than joining in the general relief and satisfaction that these convictions must have caused most people. But surely the story suggested plenty more obvious targets for Bell's usual merciless satire - the reactionary death cult that turned five British men into terrorists, for example? Instead, we get a rather predictable case of blaming the (in this case, thankfully, potential) victims. Unless I've misread it, the image suggests that British military action, symbolised by the planes and barbed wire, provided the 'real' fertiliser (in the form of 'blood, bones and bullshit') for this and other terror plots.

In other words, it's all our own fault, rather than the result of deliberate and coldblooded planning by a sophisticated international network bolstered by a twisted fundamentalist ideology. And just when I was beginning to warm to The Guardian again...